Luongo shedding youth label

Updated: March 24, 2004, 2:15 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Last season had just come to a close and Florida Panthers goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk had his speech all prepared for his young charge.

It was time, he was set to tell Roberto Luongo, to stop being the NHL's best "young" goaltender, the best "young" goaltending prospect, the "future" of his position. It was time simply to be the best.

But as the two gathered it was Luongo who spoke up first, insisting he was sick of the youth label, that he felt it was time to shed the qualifier that had followed him since his arrival in the league in 1999 and take his rightful place among his peers in the NHL.

"That was kind of what my message was going to be but he beat me to the punch. Before I could say it he said, 'I'm sick of it.'," said Malarchuk, a veteran NHL goaltender whose relationship with Luongo is cited as a major factor in this, Luongo's breakout season.

"I think he's done that," Malarchuk said.

To merely mouth such sentiments might be perceived as impetuous, as empty bravado. It is quite another to make it so.

With two weeks left in the NHL's regular season, Luongo's 67 appearances see him tied for third in the NHL behind Marty Turco and Martin Brodeur, two goaltenders who will command significant attention when the league's general managers sit down to vote on this year's Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top netminder.

And while Luongo's 2.33 goals against average is solid enough, it tells only a part of a story that is fast becoming legend -- at least in south Florida -- where the 24-year-old Luongo is being favorably compared to a young Dan Marino and to last year's World Series hero Josh Beckett.

On pace to challenge Felix Potvin's record 2,438 shots against (such records have been kept from 1976-77), Luongo has faced 418 more shots than his nearest competitor, Olaf Kolzig in Washington. And through this weekend's play, Luongo had registered 436 more saves than Kolzig, also number two in that department.

In spite of the staggering workload Luongo is in a dogfight with Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff for the league lead in save percentage with Kiprusoff holding a slight edge, .935 to .933.

The rub? Luongo has played in 34 more games.

Considering a goaltender faces an average of 30 shots a game (Luongo actually faces 34), the the Montreal native has faced the equivalent of 15 more games worth of shots than most of his competitors. Measured against the 24 shots a game Martin Brodeur faces in New Jersey, it's more like 24 extra games of rubber. All of which prompted Florida captain Olli Jokinen to ponder what Luongo's numbers would look like if he played for a veteran, defensive team like the Devils and not the learning-as-they-go Panthers.

"Unreal," he said shaking his head.

That Luongo is a Panther instead of an Islander -- or anyone else for that matter -- is the only reason the Panthers managed to hang around the edge of the NHL playoff dance like a love struck teenager without the proper ID as long as they did. It is also the reason there is a growing sentiment that Luongo is not only Vezina worthy but should also merit strong support for the Hart as the NHL's most valuable player to his team.

VEZINA TROPHY
From NHL.com:

The Vezina Trophy is an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs.

Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau, and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens, presented the trophy to the National Hockey League in 1926-27 in memory of Georges Vezina, outstanding goalkeeper of the Canadiens, who collapsed during an NHL game Nov. 28, 1925, and died of tuberculosis a few months later.

Until the 1981-82 season, the goalkeeper(s) of the team allowing the fewest number of goals during the regular season were awarded the Vezina Trophy.

The NHL awards ceremony will be held June 10 in Toronto and will be broadcast on ESPN2.
"I don't know where we'd be right now without him," Malarchuk said.

"Right now, I'd put him in the top two in the league," Jokinen said, along with the aforementioned Mr. Brodeur. "He's been unreal this year. I can't even wait for next year."

After a rocky start to the season that saw coach Mike Keenan fired and general manager Rick Dudley assume the coaching duties before relinquishing them on Feb. 9 to assistant John Torchetti, the Panthers have played at or above the .500 mark, making a surprising if ultimately doomed surge toward a playoff berth. It is an important process for the talent-laden, youthful Panthers because this is a team that may have as much up-side as any team in the NHL.

And that up-side begins in net.

"Very few teams evolve into anything without first putting that person in place," said Dudley who should know, having brought Nikolai Khabibulin into Tampa Bay where the Bolts are currently challenging for their first-ever Presidents' Trophy behind Khabibulin's strong play.

Apart from Dominik Hasek's inspiring, Hart Trophy turn in the Buffalo Sabres' net in 1997-98, Dudley said he hasn't seen as fine a season-long performance as the one turned in by Luongo. It's not just about Luongo making stops, which he does with more regularity than any other goaltender. It's the message those stops send to his youthful teammates.

Take Jay Bouwmeester, a defenseman Dudley predicts will soon be a Norris Trophy candidate. How much does it help the 20-year-old's development knowing he can take a chance, make a play, knowing that if he muffs it, the mistake is not necessarily going to end up in his net?

The returns are almost off the chart, Dudley said.

A number of factors have come into play in this, Luongo's long coming-out party. Last spring, Luongo was unexpectedly forced into action during the World Championships when veteran Team Canada starter Sean Burke went down with an injury. Luongo preserved a victory in the semifinal and then stopped 37 of 39 shots in a thrilling, overtime victory over Sweden.

"That was a big confidence-booster, a big learning experience for me," Luongo said.

In a profession known for its idiosyncratic members, Luongo may be among the least so.

"A lot of people tell me I'm one of the most normal goaltenders they know," Luongo said with a shrug.

He's happy to chat on game mornings. He likes to joke around with his teammates and he isn't afraid to speak up when someone needs to speak.

"When I've got something to say, I say it," Luongo said. "But when you're the goalie, you can't always be in there trying to motivate guys."

Luongo also doesn't melt down, nor does he blame his teammates.

"I think he's taken huge steps in being a leader," Jokinen said. "He's the guy we look up to."

Torchetti said he's seen Luongo reveal his emotions perhaps twice during a game. Win or lose, Luongo is back the next day studying film, preparing to go back to work.

"He's not quirky," said Malarchuk with whom Luongo has developed a steady friendship. "He's a very grounded person. He's just a really, really good person."

Luongo has developed an uncanny ability to keep his team from going into funks by following losses with strong performances. It is the kind of maturity that most elite goaltenders don't reveal until late in their 20s.

"That's why the age of the player is so astounding," Dudley said. "His confidence just seems to grow night after night."

If there is an ease about Luongo, it belies a strong current of self-awareness.

There are two goals at the start of the season, he explained.

"Obviously, to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "Second, to be recognized as the best goalie in the world."

Technically, Luongo has worked on controlling his rebounds and most importantly, keeping his 6-foot-3, 207-pound athletic frame in position while employing the classic butterfly style he learned at the knee of goaltending guru Francois Allaire. Even Luongo's puck-handling and his penchant for straying from the net, something of a standing joke with teammates and coaches, has improved.

"He's so quick and agile for a big man especially, what I've tried to do is make the quickness and agility more controlled," Malarchuk said.

Luongo's capacity to synthesize information is astounding, said Malarchuk who both played with and for Dudley before being hired as the Panthers' goaltending consultant last year. But there have also been significant strides made in terms of maturity.

"A lot of that process is not just the physical skill-honing but the mental toughness," Malarchuk said.

By the end of the season Luongo will be approaching 7,500 saves for his young career and the notion of burnout is a legitimate question.

Or maybe not.

"I don't think it's going to effect him at all," Torchetti said. "If he's doing it eight years straight, maybe. But if we're doing it eight years straight, I'm not here talking."

Part of the burnout issue, whether it's overplayed by the media or not, will be reconciled through Luongo's own maturity and that of the team. He is learning, he said, when he needs to take time off. Earlier this season there were games he realized after the fact he should have taken a rest, allowed himself to recharge.

"He is the biggest victim of the growing stages (of the team)," Malarchuk said. "Because he takes the brunt of things being shelled so many nights. When we lose he takes it hard. He is so competitive he believes we should be in the playoffs. He takes it very personally."

There is also stability off the ice, as Luongo has settled into a relationship with a Florida woman, the daughter of the owner of an Italian restaurant frequented by players when Luongo first arrived in south Florida from the New Islanders in June 2000. A French Canadian of Italian heritage, it seems a perfect fit, although Luongo admits he's a long way from considering joining the family business.

"Maybe when I'm old and gray," he said.

That, of course, is still a long time to come even if Luongo's play defies the normal passage of time.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.